[A Conversation with Shim Bo-Seon] On Poetry and Home

  • onMarch 23, 2018
  • Vol.39 Spring 2018
  • byJon Thompson


Jon Thompson: Pleased to meet you, Bo-Seon. I admired Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow and was happy to publish it in the series I edit, Free Verse Editions. I thought I’d open this interview by asking you to discuss your relationship with Korean poetry. What traditions in Korean poetry and what Korean poets have been important to you? Why?

Shim Bo-Seon: First of all, I’d like to thank you for helping to introduce my collection to English readers. I studied sociology rather than literature, so from the beginning, I read and wrote poetry as an amateur and an autodidact—and maybe I still do. I’m very selective with the poems that I read. I think that looking at Korea’s poetic traditions and placing my poetry within that history is more the role of readers or critics. As I started actively writing and publishing poems in the 1990s, I was in some sense able to naturally overstep the dichotomy between modernism and realism. I broke away from the classic poetic references of art history and political reality and began to bring the tension and dynamism of everyday life into focus. To me, and maybe to our generation, politics, art, and the everyday life are not separate. I use the sensations and imagination that result from their intersections as a source for my writing. That’s why Ki Hyongdo is one of the poets who has influenced me the most. His poems portray the abyss of despair hiding in the lives of the office worker, the commoner, the city dweller, as a grotesque landscape or drama. I was attracted to his work when I began to seriously write my own poetry.


Thompson: Readers wanting “personal uplift” from poetry are going to come away empty-handed. I don’t mean to suggest that the business of poetry is to uplift. It seems to me your poetry veers more toward exploring disaffection and the fleetingness of joy and pleasure, and there’s no small amount of ennui, or to put it more plainly, boredom, in your poetry, but not the “abyss of despair” you speak of in Ki Hyongdo’s poetry. Or perhaps it’s not accurate to think of your poems in terms of these structures of feeling, and the more perceptive point of view is that the poems themselves are ultimately expressions of some more fundamental angst?

Shim: I want to say that one of the jobs of poetry is the “crafting of emotions.” Of course, this study of feelings isn’t the totality of what poetry can do. Readers of poetry are on the one hand emotionally uplifted; but on the other hand, they lose their way within the poem and I think this has to do directly with a poem’s crafting of emotions. When a poem deals with sadness, the reader experiences a sorrow that is both familiar and unfamiliar to him or her and also receives an invitation to experience a further sadness that is already articulated and simultaneously expanding. The abyss that I speak of in relation to poetry is something that is distinguishable, and yet it holds immeasurable depth. I think that when we fill this kind of blank space in poetry, we create even more blank space.


Thompson: Your poetry also appears to be influenced by Western poetic traditions and to my ear, American ones. Does that seem like a fair claim? If so, what Western and poets do you admire and why?

Shim: I occasionally hear that my work reads like foreign poetry. One of my friends even asked me once if I’d read a lot of English-language poems. But that’s not why my writing sounds the way it does. I only started reading English poems after I’d entered my mid-thirties. And when I did, I was very selective about which poets I read. I think that what has influenced my work is not English literature, but prosaic English writing. When I lived in New York as a graduate student from 1998 to 2006, I was constantly writing in English. The experience trained me in thinking and in expressing myself. I wasn’t doing literary writing, it was sociological writing, and so I always had to keep clarity and logic in mind. But it is difficult to have a full understanding of what influence this learning and training had on me, and whether it’s given my poems a foreign flavor. In any case, the English-language poet I admire the most is Adrienne Rich. She was free-spirited, precise, and most importantly, radical. And she managed to create a deep emotional reverberation with her poetry.


Thompson: Adrienne Rich was “radical.” You’re right: this is the term we use now for those who demand social justice and push for change in that direction. Some readers find her work sometimes pedantic in its political insistence, though I agree with your more generous characterization. Your work seems marked by a sense that the kind of change Rich wanted—call it revolution—is a chimera. Or maybe it’s truer to say it is haunted by that dream?

Shim: When I say “radical” I don’t simply mean it in the political sense, or to mean progressive. The word “radical” can also mean “going back to and restarting from the root.” If my poetry is governed by dreams of a world in which everything is destroyed and recreated anew, then in some way, that is a blessing.


Thompson: Briefly, could I return to your interest in “prosaic English writing”? For me, the poems that play off this prosaic sense of things or other effects—the strange, for example—produce some very interesting effects in your poetry. But I was wondering if English affords an access to a different sense of the prosaic than Korean?

Shim: Writing prosaic English, especially sociological English, has led me to reason more clearly about who and what constitute the “main agent” and the “object” in my writing. This naturally makes me think more transparently about how the main agent and the object of a piece of writing come to be: through what actions, for what reasons, and through what emotions. Of course, there is the pursuit of clarity in Korean as well. But I’m not a native English speaker, so I can’t help but make mistakes when writing in English. You could say that’s why I’ve spent so much time practicing written clarity.



Thompson: You did a PhD in sociology at Columbia University. Has New York—or American culture—influenced your poetry? If so, how?

Shim: It would be more correct to say that it was living in a major city as an international student and a foreigner, rather than the culture of New York itself, that had an influence on me. I’ve always been an observer. I’ve become accustomed in particular to observing my surroundings during those instances of silence that arise with linguistic barriers—although such barriers later faded. When faced with silence in the past, I would hear real voices inside of me—more of an internal monologue than a hallucination—and in a strange way, those voices would bring me inspiration. You could say that my first book of poems, in particular, is the internal monologue unfolding inside a person observing the surrounding world.


Thompson: A lot of your poetry is haunted by the question of knowledge, or more precisely, the problem of knowledge: what we know and especially what we can’t know. In your poem “Bread, Coat, Heart,” you refer to an “unknown shadow” overtaking a park. In your poem “Illusion,” your speaker says, “From here to truth is a very long journey,” which superficially seems pessimistic about the possibility of arriving at knowledge or truth, but then the poem also posits the possibility of arriving at the end of the journey. Could you discuss this?

Shim: On a similar note, the title of my third book of poems is Today, I’m Not So Sure. Perhaps you can say that a sort of agnosticism penetrates my poems. They’re rather pessimistic that way. But not knowing isn’t a passive state. The independence that comes from actively participating and intervening in the state of unknowing causes one to ask questions. Those questions become a kind of guide, a tool to make a path for oneself in this uncharted world. They’re an instrument of perception as well, and they can become the source of any number of emotions. Sadness, despair, and loneliness, and happiness and joy as well, all arise from the questions we ask ourselves. But to me, the problem of knowing or not knowing is not simply a “question of knowledge.” It’s a question of whether I can accept this world given to me. And if I accept it, how will I accept it? And if I can’t accept it, what kind of world will I hope for instead? When I say, “I don’t know,” I’m not placing rational judgment on the situation. “I don’t know” is the starting point for a life, for a world, for a story.


Thompson: Metaphor (“That’s what love is like / It’s like a strange famine in a strange country”) and personification in your poetry appear to suggest that the world is stranger than ordinarily thought, especially by those who are rationalists. Is poetry for you a way of exceeding or challenging the world posited by rationality?

Shim: It’s a way to accommodate the world of rationality. Rationality means dividing everything around us into different types of rules and laws. It is a frame of understanding that aims at constructing a predictable system. Rationality is only one of the many ways that the self and the outside world come into contact. If one accepts that the world is full of uncertainty and indeterminacy, that world can be portrayed and perceived with a language other than that of logic. By extension, we can use different languages to participate in that world and even make new worlds for ourselves. For me, poetry is the language of a world that cannot simply be reduced to the realm of “knowing.” There’s no mystery or romance involved here. Strictly speaking, poetry is a unique language to recognize the world, to participate in the world, to make a world. But I don’t mean to conclude that this language can “do it all.” On the contrary, what draws forth the language of poetry is the will to not bring things to an end, to let them remain unfinished.


Thompson: I am interested in your statement that “We can use different languages to participate in that world and even make new worlds for ourselves.” Is it the poet here who has this power? What about people who the world doesn’t regard as poets?

Shim: It’s not just poets—people who aren’t poets also use language to participate in and create the world. People who write poetry, though, search out the requisite linguistic activity and abilities a little more consciously, and they are more adept at it. People who don’t write poetry can also discover the participatory and constructive function of language, and after they first discover it, they can use language play and language games to absorb themselves in the development of this function. Minyo and workers’ folk songs are proof of this.


Thompson: Many of your poems, especially those in Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow, set a kind of childlike awe for the world against a more chastened sense of possibility, or what might be referred to as disillusionment. What would you say about this tension in your poetry?

Shim: Sometimes I’m able to discover surprising poetry in the language of children. This is a language that they speak before they use rules and laws and norms to understand the world, before rationality and common sense are established in body and mind. Of course, poems aren’t simply the words of children. But it does take an adult who has relearned the possibilities of language to write poems. When one breaks out of the world of familiar language and explores the capabilities of language once more like a child, he or she is no longer restricted by the experiences and justifications of the adult world. When you use this as literary material or an inspirational tool—that’s when a poem is written, I think.



Thompson: Your poetry is rooted in, indeed fascinated by, the everyday, “everydayness,” the commonplace, the ordinary. Would you care to talk about this a little?

Shim: No one person can ever experience and perceive the entirety of the world. All he or she can do is think about nationality, society, the earth, the universe, while looking outside the window at scenery from inside a room, coffee mug in hand. Of course, as a sociologist, I can’t help but go beyond the ordinary and discuss the forces of structures and institutions as well. But sometimes this transcendental way of understanding ignores the enormous possibilities behind everyday life. I find that poetry and literature encompass an exploration of the strengths and possibilities of what is overlooked and ordinary. This is why even my poems concerning issues such as state violence are still interspersed with memories of baseball games and stories about dinnertime.


Thompson: To what extent do you see the self as a strange country? It seems to me that your poetry suggests that the self is no less strange than the world “outside” it. For you, what is the source of this strangeness?

Shim: The self never fails to be awkward, embarrassed, and confused. This is because we don’t have a full picture of the world around us. But this awkwardness and embarrassment and confusion of the self needs to be temporary and transient. In the process of learning this, we become adults. A “normal” life is incompatible with constant feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, and confusion, and it commands that they be dealt with in some way. I can’t entirely ignore such commands myself. But I do try to remain in a state of coexistence longer than others. As I do so, as honestly and tenaciously as I can, I try to take hold of even just one more of the world’s possibilities.


Thompson: Could you expand more on your sense of possibility in the context of poetry, or your writing of poetry?

Shim: I think that poetry possesses the highest degree of freedom. Poetry is a language that creates the greatest number and greatest diversity of possible worlds. But one of the fundamental social functions of language is the reduction of, and reaction to, uncertainty. By casting doubts on the routine social functions of language, I explore new possibilities for communication. This is the case not only for my poems, but also for every poem.


Thompson: For readers who have not yet read Someone Always in the Corner of My Eye (White Pine Press, 2016), how would you describe it in terms of continuities or discontinuities in relation to your first collection, Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow?

Shim: If my first collection was something of a monologue, my second is more of a conversation. My third collection, which has not been translated into English yet, features more characters and varied stories. My poetry collections began as monologues, but as a wider range of characters appear within them, they are slowly morphing into something broader and richer.


Thompson: This seems to suggest a development away from interiority per se . . .

Shim: You could see it as a state in which the distinction between the interior and the exterior becomes vaguer, and where their superposition becomes more varied and complicated.


Thompson: A number of poems in Someone Always in the Corner of My Eye reference home or, more accurately, the loss of home or distance from it. Yet I believe no one can do totally without it. Bo-Seon, where is your home?

Shim: My hometown is Seoul, a megacity where the feeling of place in some sense is progressively disappearing. I’ve always felt that my home is not really “home.” Poetry allows me to explore these contradictory feelings in an intense, natural, and honest manner. My poems themselves, it seems, are variations on the question “Where is my home?” 


by Jon Thompson
Poet, Strange Country (Shearsman Books, 2016)
Editor, Free Verse Editions